American Council of Learned Societies
Occasional Paper No. 5

Learned Societies and the Evolution of the Disciplines

Saul B. Cohen

David Bromwich


Guardians of the Sacred Bundle: The American
Anthropological Association and the
Representation of Holistic Anthropology

George W. Stocking, Jr.
Professor of Anthropology, University of Chicago

In the years around 1900, Franz Boas, the most important single founder of the discipline of anthropology in this country, made various statements about its nature and future as an institutionalized inquiry. As a means of providing focus for a necessarily superficial overview of a complex historical topic, I would like to consider two of these statements briefly. One of them took the form of an activity: Boas’ role in the founding of the American Anthropological Association in 1902 (Stocking 1960); the second consists of comments Boas made about the unity of anthropology in his talk on “The History of Anthropology” at the scientific sessions of the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in 1904 (in Stocking 1974). Both of these statements were, either explicitly or implicitly, prognostications; both of them may be regarded as at once foresighted and imperfectly predictive. Considered together, they will provide a theme for the remarks I have been asked to make, from the point of view of anthropology, about “the progress of disciplines in relation to professional organizations and learned societies.”

Prior to 1902, the institutionalization of anthropology in the United States was focused in three major centers—although each center was also involved in field research elsewhere in the continental United States. In Washington, D.C., there was a well-established corps of government anthropologists, employed by the Bureau of American Ethnology and the United States National Museum of the Smithsonian Institution, who were on the whole strongly committed to social evolutionism, and who since 1890 had been organized in the Anthropological Society of Washington, the publishers of the American Anthropologist. In Cambridge, Massachusetts, there was a smaller group of somewhat less doctrinaire archeologically oriented anthropologists at the Peabody Museum under Frederick W. Putnam, who since 1890 had been training graduate students at Harvard University. And in New York, under the leadership of Boas, there was a group of anthropologists at Columbia University and the American Museum of Natural History, who were critical of evolutionism, and who were associated with the American Ethnological Society, a preevolutionary anthropological group gone moribund in the 1860s which had been revivified by Boas in the late 1890s. Once a year, Section H of the peripatetic American Association for the Advancement of Science provided a kind of national forum for these three groups, and for devotees of anthropology outside the major centers (cf. Stocking 1976).

In the fall of 1901, Boas joined W J McGee, the acting chief of the Bureau of American Ethnology, in exploring the possibility of organizing a national anthropological organization. In the course of their planning activities over the next few months, a clear difference in perspective became evident. McGee, a frontiersman with no academic connection who had moved easily from amateur natural history to semi-professional geologizing before sliding across into anthropology to replace his ailing mentor John Wesley Powell, favored an “inclusive” membership policy. Boas, who had been dismayed by his experience in mixed societies in which “the lay members largely outnumber the scientific contributors,” and who was engaged in building an academic anthropology that would provide a rigor analogous to that of his own academic training in physics, favored an “exclusive” principle. McGee won the battle, insofar as the American Anthropological Association was founded in “inclusive” terms, but Boas won the war. This was in part because of constitutional modifications that kept control of the Association in the hands of its officers and Council; but to a greater extent, it was because Boas was systematically producing new anthropologists in his own image, several of whom went to work in government bureaus, under evolutionists who left no academic progeny of their own.

The new national association was inclusive also in another respect. When Boas defined the domain of anthropological knowledge in 1904, it consisted of “the biological history of mankind in all its varieties; linguistics applied to people without written languages; the ethnology of people without historic records; and prehistoric archeology.” This description corresponds to the “four fields” of academic anthropology as it was to develop in the United States, in sharp contrast to continental Europe, and, to a lesser extent, Great Britain. In Boas’ own research, which included significant contributions to all four subdisciplines, anthropology was still unified by an underlying historical perspective: linguistic, ethnology, archeology, and physical anthropology all provided evidence of the recent historical differentiation of human groups. So also, in a longer evolutionary perspective, McGee and other evolutionists assumed (although on the basis of methodological assumptions that Boas criticized) that each of these four inquiries provided evidence of the generalized development of humankind from a mute and cultureless primate form. Boas, however, felt that the unity of the inquiries that contributed to anthropology was an historically contingent phenomenon, and that there were already “indications of its breaking up.” The “biological, linguistic and ethnologic-archeological methods [were] so distinct” that the time was “rapidly drawing near” when the two former branches of anthropology would be taken over by specialists in those disciplines, and “anthropology pure and simple [would] deal with the customs and beliefs of the less civilized peoples only. . . .” (in Stocking 1974:35).

To a great extent, Boas’ prediction has in fact been born out; insofar as it has not, this may largely be due to the fact that the American Anthropological Association was founded to include in principle all four subdisciplines, and because the limited institutional unity thus created has been sustained at several critical moments when the centrifugal subdisciplinary forces threatened its fragmentation. That these centrifugal forces were resisted has been due in part to the potency of a normative image of a “holistic” anthropology that has been infrequently and imperfectly realized in actual disciplinary practice, and in part to the pragmatic need to represent a unified “anthropology” to the world outside the discipline. In the remainder of these brief remarks, I would like to look at several episodes when the unit of what some of my colleagues at Chicago disparagingly call the “sacred bundle” was reasserted.

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Of the 70 anthropologists who have served as president of the Association since its founding, only one contributed in a substantial way to as many as three of the discipline’s “four fields”: Alfred Kroeber, Boas’ senior student and successor as “grand old man” of anthropology (cf. Frantz 1981). During the interwar years, the fragmenting tendencies foreseen by Boas picked up force, as separate professional associations were formed not only in physical anthropology and linguistics, but also in anthropological archeology. The diachronic orientation that had sustained the linkage of ethnology to the other three sub-disciplines was greatly attenuated, as ethnographers focused increasingly on the study of behavioral processes in a shallow “ethnographic present.” Turning from natural history toward the social sciences, ethnology was gradually transformed into what came to be called “cultural” or, for some, “social anthropology.” With the ending of the “museum period” (cf. Stocking 1985), anthropology became one of the most highly academicized of all the social sciences. Even so, the activities of a number of anthropologists in government during the New Deal and World War II provided the basis for yet another anthropological association, the Society for Applied Anthropology.

With half of professional anthropologists engaged in some kind of war work, Washington D.C., became once again a major center of power in the profession—and of dissatisfaction with its existing institutional structure, especially among a number of younger anthropologists who had received their Ph.D.’s in the interwar period, and who were not yet represented in the Association’s leadership. Echoing Boas’ fears of amateur dominance, these younger anthropologists were fearful that the rise of alternative organizations would reduce the Association to an organization of ethnologists, unable to “pull its weight” with the various interdisciplinary research councils, or adequately to “promote anthropology” in the national science legislation that was then already on the horizon. In 1945, an attempt was made to found an “American Society of Professional Anthropologists” that could mobilize the resources of the profession for a wide range of both internally and externally oriented activities—in contrast to the Association, which, save for its publication work, was largely dormant between annual meetings.

The outcome of this process, however, was not— as in Great Britain at the same historical moment—a separate professional grouping of social or cultural anthropologists. The dissidents themselves retained, for both pragmatic and normative reasons, a vision of the “essential core” of anthropology as “the comparative study of human biology, culture and language” (Stocking 1976:38). The reorganization compromise of 1947 did provide for changes in the Association’s structure (including the restriction of voting privileges to a newly created category of “Fellows,” and the creation of an Executive Board and a Secretariat), and the next several elections saw a clear generational transition in the officers of the Association. But as the noticeably greater representation of archeologists among the Association’s presidents of the next decade attests, the whole episode seems in retrospect most notable as a statement that an integrated embracive discipline claiming for itself the status of a “science” would be more effective than a congeries of independent sub-disciplines in representing the needs of professional anthropologists in the brave new postwar world of governmentally subsidized science (cf. Frantz 1974).

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In the neo-evolutionary milieu of the post-war decade, it was still possible for a symposium on Anthropology Today to encompass all the fields of anthropology in what could be regarded as a single intellectual framework—which Kroeber, as surviving elder statesman of the embracive tradition, was instrumental in defining. But over the next four decades, the volumes of the Biennial and (since 1972) the Annual Review of Anthropology document a history of proliferative centrifugal growth, as review articles originally organized in terms of four “core chapters” gradually diversified to cover an ever broader range of adjectival anthropologies: economic, political, medical, legal, and many more—with the unifying “four fields” manifest primarily in the categories of the volume indices. While the volume prefaces still referred occasionally to “the discipline,” the most revealing such comment was one expressing “a certain uneasiness felt by some of our colleagues about what it is that remains to [it]” (Annual Review of Anthropology 1976; cf Stocking 1987).

Substantive diversification, however, was not the only factor contributing to the sense of malaise that began to pervade anthropology as the government funded academic expansion of the late 1950s and 1960s began to come to an end. In the context of the end of the traditional colonial system and the political turmoil aroused by the Vietnam War, there was a heightened concern for the ethical and political implications of research, which along with a critique of traditional theoretical and methodological approaches throughout the social sciences, led some to speak of a “crisis in anthropology,” and to call for the “reinvention” of the disciplines (Hymes 1972).

As the actual arena in which the sense of crisis was, in large part, acted out, the Association could not but reflect and respond to its manifestations. Starting with the 1965 meeting, which took place in the aftermath of “Project Camelot,” there were a long series of highly politicized annual meetings, which after the establishment of a Committee on Organization in 1967, led to a number of modifications in the Association’s structure and functioning. These changes had the somewhat paradoxical double effect of democratizing its elected governance and strengthening its appointed national bureaucracy.

To a very great extent, the “crisis” of the late 1960s was resolved by a process that might be called “domestication”—much of which has been, like the crisis itself, acted out through the Association. Resolutions on a variety of political topics have become standard fare at the annual meetings. Younger anthropologists teaching at non-elite universities, many of them women, began to be elected to Association office. The proliferation of adjectival anthropologists given regular places on the programs of annual meetings began to include a number that were manifestly outgrowths of the crisis years: Marxist anthropologists, Black anthropologists, humanist anthropologists, etc. One perhaps unintended consequence of such developments was a substantial increase in the service activities of the Association.

In this context, the problem of how the Association could represent the putative unity of anthropology became once again a matter of systematic concern. The issue was in fact precipitated by an Internal Revenue Service tax audit, in which the IRS called into question the Association’s tax-exempt status on the basis of a claim that the sharing of costs for administrative services the Association performed for 14 cooperating adjectival societies groups was in fact business income. After a meeting among the Presidents of the Association and its major “quadrant societies,” the Association’s Executive Board proposed a major reorganization. As originally presented, in October 1982, under the title “Adapting to Survive,” the reorganization plan would have incorporated 17 “units,” among them the “quadrant societies,” the three regional branches of the Association, and, as a kind of residual category for the 2,900 anthropologists who belonged only to the Association itself, one unit simply designated “general anthropology.” Every unit was to have to one representative for each 1,000 members on a Council, which in turn would elect an Executive Board, on which the larger units would all be guaranteed membership. However, by the time an amended proposal was voted on by the Association’s membership a year later, three of the four “quadrant” societies, and another cooperating group, had voted not to join the merged group. Nevertheless, the proposed articles of incorporation for the first time specifically defined the purpose of the Association as advancing “anthropology as the science of humankind in all its aspects, through archeological, biological, ethnological and linguistic research” (Anthropology Newsletter, 1983, Special Issue:3); and the revised by-laws included shadow units in archeology, biological anthropology, linguistic anthropology, and “practicing” (i.e. applied) anthropology to replace the missing quadrant groups. In the event, the reorganization proposals passed by an 86% majority—although only 2,200 of the Association’s 7,400 members returned ballots. Despite 80 years of fragmenting pressures, the sacred bundle still held together.

The potency of its holistic medicine is evidenced in the reorganization discussions as recorded in the Anthropology Newsletter. When 29 New York City anthropologists wrote opposing the plan, it was precisely on the grounds that (with the non-participation of several quadrant societies), reorganization would promote “both administrative and intellectual division at the very time when consolidation is vital to our discipline” (1983, #6:2). And in an ironic twist, the plan was put through during the term (and with the articulate support) of Dell Hymes, who in arguing for the “reinvention of anthropology” a decade previously, had echoed Boas’ suggestion that the traditional four field constitution of the discipline was an historical accident, which a reinvented anthropology might appropriately reconsider.

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Five years later, it may still be argued that Boas’ prediction has in most respects proved correct. The resentment felt of archeologists and physical anthropologists toward sociocultural anthropologists, which Hymes suggested was less evident in the Association itself than in academic departments, is still to be found in many of those latter precincts. The meetings of the Association are still exhausting exercises in the representation of intellectual diversity. The American Anthropologist, which Hymes noted was widely charged with failure “to unify the field,” is still regarded by many as virtually unreadable.

But for those who still feel that the structure of academic disciplines should, at least in principle, guarantee a place for a unified discourse about the development and diversity of humankind in all its aspects and in the broadest temporal framework, simply maintaining the symbolic importance of such a holistic viewpoint has something to recommend it—quite apart from the more practical issues of effectively representing a small profession before the larger world of scholarship, funding agencies and the general public.

References Cited

American Anthropological Association. 1983. Anthropology Newsletter.

Frantz, Charles. 1974. “Structuring and Restructuring the American Anthropological Association.” Paper to the American Anthropological Association, Nov. 22.

———. 1981. “Scholars of the Chair: Selected Characteristics of the Presidents of the American Anthropological Association, 1902–1979.” In Frantz, ed. Ideas and Trends in World Anthropology, pp. 15–25. New Delhi.

Hymes, Dell. 1972. Reinventing Anthropology. New York.

Kroeber, A. L. et al. 1953. Anthropology Today: An Encyclopedic Inventory. Chicago.

Siegel, B. et al. 1959–71. Biennial Review of Anthropology. Palo Alto, California.

———. 1972–. Annual Review of Anthropology. Palo Alto, California.

Stocking, G. W., Jr. 1960. “Franz Boas and the Founding of the American Anthropological Association.” American Anthropologist 62: 1–17.

———. 1974. The Shaping of American Anthropology, 1883–1911: A Franz Boas Reader. New York.

———. 1976. “Ideas and Institutions in American Anthropology: Thoughts toward a History of the Interwar Years.” In Stocking, ed. Selected Papers from the “American Anthropologist,” 1921–1945. Washington, D.C.

———. 1985. “Philanthropoids and Vanishing Cultures: Rockefeller Funding and the End of the Museum Era in Anglo-American Anthropology.” In Stocking, ed. Objects and Others: Essays on Museums and Material Culture. Madison, Wisconsin.

———. 1987. “Anthropology Yesterday and Today: Thoughts on the ‘Crisis’ and ‘Reinvention’ of Anthropology.” Paper for the IVth Congress of Spanish Anthropology, April 20–24.